When Peter Chiarelli traded for Griffin Reinhart at the 2015 Draft, he did more than bring in a building block on the back end. He set up a formidable obstacle in the path of Darnell Nurse, who will now almost certainly have to pass the former No. 4 overall draft pick if he is to make the Oilers’ roster.
When we assess the Oilers’ blue line, it becomes pretty clear that it’s going to be difficult to work in both Nurse and Reinhart, particularly since neither player will be well-served by starting the year in the press box. It should be uncontroversial to say that it’s far better for a player like Nurse to start the year in the minors than in the No. 7 or No. 8 role; he’s at a point in his development where he needs to play. The same holds true for Reinhart.
We can further assume that all of Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom, Mark Fayne and Justin Schultz will be in the top-six on opening night. Todd McLellan had them in the top-four on Day 1 of training camp and while that may not hold to the end of camp it’s a good indicator of how each is (justifiably) regarded by the organization.
That leaves two spots in the top-six. It is of course theoretically possible that Reinhart and Nurse fill those two spots, but doing that would leave McLellan with an ugly choice between playing an all-rookie third pairing or running two of three pairings with rookies on them.
That also leaves aside the difficulties of dealing with the team’s current veterans. If both Reinhart and Nurse sit in the top-six, that leaves Andrew Ference in the press-box (his no-move clause means he cannot be demoted) and either both of Eric Gryba and Nikita Nikitin waived or one waived and the other in the press-box next to Ference.
When we put it all together, it’s going to be very difficult for both Nurse and Reinhart to make the team. For it to happen, McLellan needs to be willing to run two rookies night-in and night-out on an already uncertain defence. Chiarelli needs to be willing to scratch or waive three veterans every night, including one he made a point of acquiring this summer. It almost certainly should not happen and it almost certainly will not happen.
Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign
The most recent indicator that Nurse was starting on the outside looking in came in camp when he was initially paired with David Musil. Ference and Nikitin started off together and Reinhart and Gryba started off together; that makes Nurse No. 9 on the depth chart.
It isn’t the only sign, though. Chiarelli has hinted throughout the summer that there might be value in sending Nurse to the minors. Some of his comments are listed below:
- September 12: “He’s an energetic player, we have to teach him you don’t have to do six things, if you do three of those things very well, you can do the other three later and be good at them, so let’s take steps. He’s got some stuff to learn but there’s a lot to like there.”
- September 12: “For a defenceman there’s more responsibilities so Darnell may have a steeper climb [to make the NHL] there.”
- September 13: “There’s a lot of nuances to a defenceman’s game that he has to smooth out also. The enthusiasm’s there, and there’s a lot of good parts to his game, but the puck retrievals and when to funnel off passes and stuff like that. But that stuff will come… He’ll skate into a funnel [with the puck] a little bit. He makes some good plays. He’s exuberant, which is good. As I said, he’s been leading this team. Those are things that come with experience and coaching and I know he’s a real coachable kid.”
Reinhart has a year of professional experience under his belt, and it’s hard to overvalue that. He’s 13 months older than Nurse, and it’s hard to overvalue that at these players’ ages. He has lots of experience playing the right side, which makes it easier to shuffle him into other roles in the top-six; that matters a lot too given that whichever rookie makes the cut will be playing every night or close to it.
Chiarelli said something else in that September 12 interview which is illuminating. It was regarding Reinhart and the context was to do with the Oilers’ top two defence pairings:
We’ve got some guys we acquired, Griffin Reinhart who I believe is a terrific player. I think he needs a little bit of time to get up and running before I can anoint him in the top four.
To me, that sounds like the plan is to give Reinhart 10-20 games to see if he can push his way past a veteran and into the top-four on merit. If that happens, it likely triggers a trade, and simultaneously makes it much easier to slot Nurse in on the third pairing, particularly if Nurse has been dominant in the AHL over the same stretch.
Now, that plan may not survive training camp; the futures of all these players are in their hands and only a fool would dogmatically state that Nurse isn’t talented enough to alter minds, particularly since McLellan already made it plain that there are likely to be changes along the way. But the plan as outlined above is a sensible one for the team and the individuals, so if Nurse is going to shake it up he’s going to have to be very good in the preseason.
RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS